James "Satch" Sullinger came to Oberlin as a non-traditional 26-year- old freshman and first-generation college student in 1975. Two decades later, after building a reputation as one of the top high-school coaches in Ohio, he has begun a new association with his alma mater as head coach of the men's basketball team. In 1994 he was named the State of Ohio AP Division II Coach of the Year and his Beechcroft High School team finished as the Central Ohio Division II Coaches Final Poll Champion.
Sullinger considers himself a teacher as much as a coach and wants his players to take with them more than just basketball from his program. "I want them to learn that in life, if you are going to do something, then do it to the best your ability and become a man of your word. You play the game the way you live your life."
His return marks the beginning of a new era in Oberlin College basketball. The philosophy behind his coaching style is clear. "I approach the team from a family point of view," says Sullinger. "I teach my players to ask of each other without seeking something in return and to keep the team above the individual." His goals are realistic yet ambitious. "This year I want to establish expectations and win some games. I want to build a program that will be a perennial challenger for the conference championship; a team made up of students who are Oberlin material and happen to be basketball players."
Sullinger played for Patrick Penn, who recorded more victories at Oberlin than any other men's basketball coach, and his influence on Satch is apparent. "Coach Penn brought me to Oberlin and he taught me how to be a man," Sullinger recalls. "It's about attitude, not age. Playing for him, you learned how to be a part of something bigger than yourself." A 1978 graduate of the College, he was captain of the team during his junior and senior seasons and was the starting center on the 1975-76 team that finished 16-11 and claimed the Ohio Athletic Conference championship.
After graduating, Sullinger remained at the College as an assistant basketball coach for two seasons. He moved on to Grambling State University, where he was a graduate assistant basketball coach while completing work on his master's degree in athletic administration. Sullinger left Grambling and became a full-time administrative assistant to the executive director of the Olympic basketball program in Colorado Springs.
Sullinger has remained close to the College through the years. He has coached the Oberlin alumni teams that return to play against the varsity and he still talks with Coach Penn every week. His wife, Barbara, also attended Oberlin, earning a degree in 1976. For Sullinger, coaching at Oberlin is more than just a job. "I love this place. After I accepted the position and stepped into the gym for the first time it felt like home."
-by Scott Wargo